April is National Bilingual/Multilingual Learner Advocacy Month! As part of the IES 20th Anniversary celebration, we are highlighting NCER’s investments in field-initiated research. In this guest blog, Drs. Doré LaForett and Ximena Franco-Jenkins (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill) and Adam Winsler (George Mason University) discuss their IES-funded exploration study, some challenges they encountered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how their study contributes to supporting multilingual students.
The BEE Project
Our IES-funded study, called the Bilingualism, Education, and Excellence (BEE) project, was born out of a research partnership initiated by a principal of a Spanish-English dual-language (DLE) elementary school. She noticed that student engagement in DLE classrooms seemed to differ depending on the student’s home language and the language of instruction. This got us thinking about how we as a field know very little about what goes on in two-way immersion (TWI) classrooms in terms of teacher language use, student-teacher relationships, student engagement, and learning outcomes for students who speak Spanish or English at home. Therefore, we were excited for the opportunity to dig deeper into links between language of instruction and academic outcomes for students in a relatively new immigrant community like North Carolina. Specifically, we were interested in whether and how the amount of instruction in English and Spanish is related to improvements in student academic outcomes in English and Spanish.
We conducted extensive individual direct student assessments at the beginning and end of the school year, as well as intensive classroom observations to assess both language of instruction and student on-task engagement during both English and Spanish instruction. Although we are still analyzing the data, preliminary findings suggest that language model (90% Spanish/10% English vs. 50% Spanish/50% English), type of 50/50 model used (switching language of instruction mid-day vs alternating days), and initial student language proficiency all matter for student engagement and academic outcomes assessed in English and Spanish. For some outcomes, students with low language proficiency had lower average spring scores when in the 50/50 model compared with students in the 90/10 model. In contrast, students with high language proficiency had higher average spring scores when in the 50/50 model compared with the 90/10 model. In addition, students who speak mostly English at home have a hard time staying engaged on the Spanish day in 50/50 alternate programs.
Impact of COVID-19 on Our Research and Pivots Made
Although we are excited about these findings, like many other studies, we encountered challenges with conducting our study when the pandemic hit. While some studies may have been able to pivot and resume data collection using a remote platform, we had to pause data collection activities during spring 2020 and the 2020-21 school year given our study design and the context in which our research was being conducted. For instance, we used gold-standard, English/Spanish, parallel direct assessments of children which required it to be in person since on-line versions were not available. Also, classroom- and student-level observations were not possible when instruction was remote because, for example, cameras were turned off or there was a lack of access to remote or hybrid learning platforms, due to issues such as contactless video recording technologies that prioritize the talk of only one individual in the classroom rather than the entire class or do not allow for focused observations of individual student behavior.
Therefore, our top priority was maintaining our partnerships with the school districts during the ‘sleeper year.’ We kept in touch and followed our partners’ lead as to when and how we could resume. Meanwhile, we tried to understand what school districts were doing for DLE instruction (in-person, hybrid, remote) during the pandemic. The research team found it necessary to shift tasks during the pandemic, and our efforts were centered on data management and dissemination activities. Once schools started to reopen in 2021-22, our team continued to be patient and flexible to address the health and visitor regulations of the various school districts. In the end, we had one year of data pre-pandemic, one pandemic year without spring data, and one year of data post-pandemic.
Despite these challenges, we used this opportunity to gather information about the learning experiences of students enrolled in the final year of our study, who had been exposed to remote or hybrid learning during the 2020-21 school year. So, when schools reopened in fall 2021, we asked our schools about what instruction was like during the pandemic, and we also asked teachers and parents what they thought about dual language progress during the 2020-21 school year. Teachers were more likely to report that students made good gains in their language skills over that year compared to parents. Further, parents who reported greater English-speaking learning opportunities during remote instruction tended to speak primarily English at home and have more education. Parents who reported that their child had difficulties participating in remote instruction due to technology tended to speak more Spanish at home and have less education.
These findings show how inequities in the home environment, such as those experienced during the pandemic, may have reduced learning opportunities for some students in DLE programs. This is particularly noteworthy because the social experience of language learning is critical in DLE programs, so reduced opportunities to speak in English and Spanish—particularly for students who are not yet fully bilingual or do not live in bilingual homes, can really undermine the goals of DLE programs. These reduced learning opportunities also give us pause as we consider how best to test for cohort effects, choose appropriate procedures for dealing with the missing data, and proceed cautiously with generalizing findings.
A Focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Our research is grounded in the cultural mismatch theory, where DLE programs are hypothesized to produce greater alignment or match with English learners’ (ELs’) home environments compared to non-DLE programs. By design, DLE programs that support heritage languages seek to promote bilingualism, bi-literacy, and biculturalism which bolster ELs’ social capital, increase academic performance and reduce the achievement gap for ELs. Thus, effective DLE programs are examples of anti-racist policies and practices. However, some have suggested that DLE programs may be conferring more benefits for White, native English speakers (that is, the Matthew effect, where the rich get richer) compared to the students whose heritage language and culture is being elevated in DLE programs. This is especially concerning given our data showing a potential exacerbation of the Matthew effect during the pandemic due to a variety of factors (lack of access to technology, less-educated families struggling to support their children during remote instruction) suggesting not only learning loss but also language loss. Our research is attempting to open the black box of DLE programs in such classrooms and examine whether experiences, engagement, and outcomes are similar across language backgrounds. We hope that information from our study about the intersection of language proficiency and language of instruction will facilitate decisions regarding how students are assigned to different language models and ultimately support equitable learning opportunities for students attending DLE programs.
Ximena Franco-Jenkins is an Advanced Research Scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Adam Winsler is an Associate Chair Professor at George Mason University.
Doré R. LaForett is an Advanced Research Scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
This blog was produced by Helyn Kim (Helyn.Kim@ed.gov), Program Officer for the English Learners Portfolio, NCER.